The really striking aspect of A Walk In The Woods is its modesty. Which isn’t necessarily bad. But it also left me thinking, “Huh, so that’s all they were aiming for…”
The plot is based on the book by travel author and humorist Bill Bryson, and concerns his somewhat ill-conceived decision to hike the Appalachian Trail despite already being a grandfather. After a neighbor’s death forces a bout of soul searching, Bryson (Robert Redford) settles on the adventure as a way to achieve what could best be described as some self renewal. Bryson himself is a tight-lipped sort – he can only articulate that it’s something he needs to do – his pre-planning is impulsive, and his loving and patient wife (Emma Thompson) is convinced the whole idea is mad, given his age.
But she eventually gives in, on the condition that Bryson not go alone. That leads to a funny sequence where he calls up loads of old friends and they all turn him down, until one acquaintance he didn’t contact, but who got word through the grape vine, calls him up. That acquaintance is the overweight, grizzled, gravely-voiced, harmonica-slinging Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte).
In keeping with the the low-key vibe, the film never really gets into why the two friends had a falling out. It seems to boil down to personality differences that emerged after a group trek across Europe in their younger days. The dialogue never really fills things out, but Redford and Nolte are both seasoned and accomplished actors, so it’s not necessary.
At any rate, after Katz embarrasses Bryson around the dinner table with overly-detailed recollections – much to the rest of the family’s delight – the two men are off. What ensues is a pretty standard-issue set of comedic hijinks, plus a bit of drama as the two men battle age, the elements, and their mutual pasts. Kristen Schaal shows up as an insufferable fellow hiker, along with Nick Offerman as the self-assured REI salesperson who gets Bryson all decked out. And Mary Steenburgen – as the proprietor of one of the hotels Bryson and Katz stay at – gets a few nice scenes with Redford.
But it’s the relationship between the two men that’s the heart of the film. Redford is solid as the put-together, if slightly head-in-the-clouds Bryson. It’s Nolte who really shines as Katz. Forced to observe Bryson’s life – successful career, happy family, devoted marriage – in contrast to his own meandering path and run-ins with the law, Nolte subtly but artfully embodies Katz’s regret. In the one scene where the dialogue really shines, Katz confronts his own history of alcoholism head-on: “There’s a hole in my life where drinking used to be,” he tells his friend with gruff dignity, brushing aside all the cant about virtue and “flourishing” that usually accompanies pontifications on the evils of addiction.
It’s not that Katz has realized he has something better to fill that hole with, because there isn’t anything better. It’s just that he knows that if he fills it, it will eat everything else.
As for Redford, his duties in the script are less dramatic, but he nails the manner of a man who disapproves of his friend’s waywardness, but is too old and familiar with life to really feel the heat of that disapproval. Rather, he simply observes it in himself from a matter-of-fact distance.
A few songs by Lord Huron make an appearance in the film, and the weird mix of lackadaisical eternalness and forward-driving percussion that marks the artist’s work proves a good complement to the visuals. The script by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman is leisurely and does not stretch itself: it gets in, does its job, and gets out in a punchy 104 minutes.
As for director Ken Kwapis, he handles the pacing, scene construction, and the vistas of the Appalachian wilderness with unremarkable, but workman-like competency. A Walk In The Woods isn’t shot in a “gritty” or low-fi style to signal its status as an indie film with a small-scale human story. The cinematography is as big and bright and clean and wide-eyed as any other mainstream comedy or drama. It has lots of silly gags involving bears, the aforementioned Kristen Schaal, and accommodating women at laundromats. But it doesn’t push these elements into the juvenile absurdism practiced by many modern comedies. It throws in a possible romantic subplot, but then cuts it off in exactly the way it would be cut off if you were dealing with mature adults in the real world. Its overall arc and conclusion are bounded by the mundane to a remarkable degree. While the climax is a bit abrupt, the filmmakers handle the coda with grace.
Personally, though I’m much younger than Bryson, I’ve been feeling a similar impatience with my urban, computer-bound existence. I’ve been wishing to stand on a cliff-face myself and stare out over the wide green world and remember how small I am. So I was moved by the film.
A Walk In The Woods is very modest, almost to the point of being slight. So I’m not sure how or if to recommend it. I definitely found it pleasurable, but then I also had the advantage of seeing it for free.